Much has been made of the Golden State Warriors agreeing to a deal with DeMarcus Cousins since it was struck Monday evening.
Here, though, are some truths about the transaction. First, he is coming off a torn Achilles’ and won’t be available until New Year’s Day at the earliest. Second, Cousins didn’t exactly have an overwhelming number of offers from which to choose. Third, Cousins doesn’t fill Golden State’s biggest need, one that nearly caught up to the Warriors last season: the lack of requisite depth behind Andre Iguodala on the wing.
So, no, for all of the noise that has been created by Cousins agreeing to sign with Golden State, it hasn’t appreciably moved the Warriors closer to winning next season’s NBA title (other than in outside perception). But as the opening days of free agency have played out, Golden State nonetheless has seen its path to a third straight championship made easier.
It’s a path that’s been paved by events out of the Warriors’ control.
First, the Houston Rockets lost versatile forward Trevor Ariza in a surprise raid by the Phoenix Suns in the opening hours of free agency. Then the Los Angeles Lakers surrounded LeBron James with the NBA’s equivalent of a Bozo the Clown car by signing Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
The result is a Western Conference that, overall, is deeper than ever, with as many as 10 teams — the Warriors, Rockets, Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans — capable of winning 50 games.
None of them, however, seem like a serious threat to taking down the Warriors and preventing them from reaching a fifth straight NBA Finals.
That likely will come as somewhat of a surprise to the average basketball fan, given that Chris Paul returned to the Rockets on a four-year, $160 million deal on the opening day of free agency and James moved from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, becoming an ever-present threat a few hundred miles south of the Bay Area.
But Houston’s hopes of a potential repeat of last year’s thrilling Western Conference finals took a huge — and possibly fatal — blow when Ariza stunned the basketball world by signing a one-year, $15 million deal in the opening hours of free agency with the Suns. The move used up all of Phoenix’s cap space — which had been expected to be ticketed for a point guard, something the Suns still don’t have — while also pulling Ariza away from the Rockets.
Houston could have paid Ariza — it owned his full Bird rights, meaning it could match any offer despite being well over the salary cap. But with Paul’s deal costing the Rockets roughly $40 million per year the next four years, and with Clint Capela still on the market awaiting a big payday himself as a restricted free agent, Houston clearly couldn’t stomach the thought of soaring past a $250 million payroll to match the money Ariza got from Phoenix, which is the stratosphere the Rockets would be in had they done so.
Tilman Fertitta, who bought the Rockets last season, put a large chunk of his fortune into the purchase. Clearly ponying up a quarter of a billion dollars to run this year’s team back was going to be a bridge too far.
Perhaps the Rockets will be able to keep Luc Mbah a Moute, who remains a free agent and was a key piece last year — one who missed virtually all of the Western Conference finals after dislocating his shoulder twice. But even if Houston does, Ariza is arguably the best “3-and-D” player in the NBA, as far as role players who have those traits go.
Losing Ariza has been lost amid the insanity of free agency, but it is one of the most important transactions — from an overall title contention standpoint — that’s happened yet.
The other has been the Lakers mismanaging their roster around James once they got him to commit. No, this isn’t a criticism of the Lakers for failing to execute a Kawhi Leonard trade. Frankly, it always felt unlikely that the Spurs would trade their star to the Lakers. Remember what their coach, Gregg Popovich, said about the trade that sent Pau Gasol (who ironically now plays for San Antonio) to the Lakers a decade ago.
“What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension,” Popovich told reporters at the time. “There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I’d like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade.”
No, this is about the Lakers following up their signing of James with four signings — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson, McGee and Rondo — who are questionable fits, at best, with what James needs to be successful.
To be fair, Caldwell-Pope is exactly the kind of player — a defensive stopper at shooting guard who is at least a passable shooter and who is coming off a career best 38.9 percent mark from three-point range — who fits next to James. The fact he is represented by the same agency as James doesn’t hurt, either.
The other signings, though, don’t make any sense. Stephenson and Rondo both need the ball in their hands — as opposed to it being in James’s hands — and both aren’t good enough shooters to be adequate off-ball options. McGee, meanwhile, worked at times next to Golden State’s four all-stars the past two years. It remains to be seen whether he can be even remotely effective in any other situation.
The other West contenders lag even farther behind. If the Spurs keep Leonard, they will likely be among the top four seeds in the West. But even if they do, his supporting cast isn’t nearly good enough to stop Golden State. Ditto for the Thunder, which is understandably thrilled to have convinced Paul George to stick around in free agency but which lacks enough depth around George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams to give Golden State a real test. The rest of the West teams in contention for a playoff spot are even further away.
In fact, the best challenge to Golden State will come, despite all of the discussion of how imbalanced the conferences are, from whoever represents the Eastern Conference in next year’s NBA Finals. Healthy versions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward should allow the Boston Celtics to go toe-to-toe even with Golden State. The Philadelphia 76ers, on the other hand, feel like the most likely Leonard trade destination — and a Leonard-Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid triumvirate would be incredibly difficult to stop.
Either of those options, however, would take until next June to materialize. And while people have pointed to Cousins as the reason Golden State’s path will be easier next season, it is the decisions other teams have made that have increased the Warriors’ odds to walk away with yet another title.
Read more on the NBA: